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Published Date: October 8, 2018

Published Date: October 8, 2018

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5 Things the Bible Does (and Doesn’t) Say About Modesty

Editor’s Note: This is one of our 2018 Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!

Eight years ago, my family and I spent an afternoon on a beach in Barcelona. Aware that parts of the beach were “clothing optional,” we opted for the first crescent—the one deemed “safe for the whole family.” My husband, my three daughters, and I learned quickly that tops were optional everywhere. This was our first exposure to cultural norms in Spain and it was a bit of a shock.

We saw a lot of women’s bodies, the five of us un-sun-kissed Americans. We saw families playing frisbee, couples swimming together, and women and men lying in the sun letting it do its golden sun thing.

Do you know what we didn’t see? We didn’t see a single man on that beach assaulting a woman because she was topless and he couldn’t help himself. I didn’t see any men staring at the women as they played on the sand. Families and friends were enjoying a day at the beach together, completely oblivious to one another’s state of dress or undress.

What we observed on that beach undercuts the popular narrative of the evangelical church. Church leaders confidently tell young men and women: “Guys are visual beings. They can’t help their hormones. Girls need to take responsibility to keep their brothers from stumbling. Ladies, cover up if you really want to follow Jesus.”

But if this is universal, biological, gospel truth, why hasn’t anyone told the Barcelonés? Their approach to the body defies all that my daughters and I have been taught—even in an egalitarian denomination. But does the Bible really body-shame women? Does it exonerate men when they objectify women?

Proponents will say they don’t exonerate men. Men are still guilty, but women, the victims of men’s objectification, are guilty too. But there’s a chasm of difference between “men are guilty, period” and “men and women are both guilty.” Besides, theology informs practice, and this flawed theology is often used against victims and in defense of perpetrators and harassers.

So what should I say to my daughters about what they saw that day? What should I be teaching them about how God feels about their bodies? Here are five things the Bible taught me about body shaming and Jesus.

1. The Bible doesn’t teach that bodies are shameful.

Genesis recounts the creation of humans and makes it clear that our Creator delights in us. God called humans the highlight of creation. We weren’t simply “good” but “very good.” I don’t believe he meant that only on an existential level. God seems to enjoy the appearance of his pièce de resistance. The creation of humans is described with a level of detail that no other aspect of creation merits. It was a hands-on, intricate design process.

In the Psalms, we’re told that the human body is fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139). Paul describes a mystery beyond imagination: our bodies are the home of the Holy Spirit and we are part of Christ. And Peter, assumed to be all for modest dress rules (more on that later), wrote that we are built into God’s spiritual temple and already are his holy, royal priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

If God considered our bodies shameful, he wouldn’t be content to make a home in us. And God isn’t gnostic—he doesn’t separate our spirits from our bodies. If one part is made new in the eyes of God, then all of us is. There’s no dualism in Scripture.

God rejoices in the forms he created. That didn’t change when shame entered the world. Interestingly though, the fall is what prompts humans to feel shame due to their nakedness. But even after the fall, the Bible continues to celebrate the beauty and strength of the body.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the forefathers of those Barcelona beach bathers painted and sculpted countless nude human forms. They understood innately—if not through Christian theology—that the body was art created by the Master. And today, their descendants play on beaches without shame or fear.

Despite what they hear elsewhere, I want my daughters to learn—as they began to that day on the beach—that God loves the way he made them and finds nothing about their bodies shameful.

2. The Bible doesn’t teach that the victim is at fault.

I can’t locate a single instance where the Bible implies that sexual assault is the woman’s fault. Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), Tamar (2 Samuel 13), Dinah (Genesis 34)—all three stories are recorded as instances where men sinned, not as examples of women who “had it coming” because of the way they behaved or dressed.

Scripture doesn’t say or even imply that Bathsheba shouldn’t have been bathing naked where David could see her. It doesn’t admonish Tamar for going into her half-brother’s bedroom without forethought. The Bible doesn’t blame Dinah for wandering into “the wrong part of town.” These women all suffered terrible harm, but we have no biblical evidence that members of their communities asked them what they were wearing or how late they were out.

Scripture solidly places the responsibility where it belongs—on the perpetrator. Men don’t get a pass because the women they assaulted were beautiful and they couldn’t help themselves. In fact, in the same passage where Paul talks about sexual sin, he argues that, “You can’t say that our bodies were made for sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:13, NLT). It seems to me that Paul is contradicting those who maintain that male bodies are biologically programmed to respond to sexual urges. No, Paul says, we were not made that way.

3. The Bible doesn’t teach that we can blame others for our sin.

Jesus’ teaching is consistent with Paul’s thoughts on sexual immorality (or vice versa, really). He warns that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Jesus doesn’t add “unless she’s dressed revealingly” or “except when you feel like you can’t control yourself.”

When you choose to look with lust, you can’t blame the person you’re looking at. And when we allow men to shift the blame, we strip away their power to make moral choices—to look away and obediently honor others.

Notably, there’s virtually no other sin for which we allow believers to offer such an excuse.

“Hey, you parked your brand new sports car in the driveway. You were just asking to have it stolen.”

“The company leaves its books open for anyone to embezzle. I couldn’t help myself—I needed money.”

No one would make such ridiculous statements. Yet they’re exactly as illogical as telling girls: “Men can’t help how you make them feel when you dress immodestly.”

We don’t give personal responsibility passes for any other sin—only male lust. But we shouldn’t. We’re perpetuating the lie that our girls have to cover up to save men from themselves. And that lie is offensive to men of good character and enabling to those of bad.

(Also, anyone who says women can’t be just as visual as men hasn’t heard women watching the World Cup lately.)

4. The Bible doesn’t teach a dress code.

“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (1 Timothy 2:9, NIV).

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).

In context, Paul and Peter are addressing the same issue, and it’s not lack of body coverage. It’s excess. They appeal to women who felt the need to show everyone else in the church how much they could afford to look good. Their sin was pride—not immodesty.

The word “modesty” in these verses means “downcast eyes.” In other words, Paul is advocating humility and self-control. I hear plenty of teaching on how girls must cover themselves up to obey the Scripture, but I have yet to hear about why they should ditch the gold and pearls. Lots of folks want to expound on how tight a dress can be, but no one I’ve listened to recently has commented on the expensive designer label inside.

So should we have no rules? Do I teach my daughters to wear anything at all, or nothing at all? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know there’s one Bible lesson that I’d like them, and all girls, to know.

5. The Bible does teach self (and mutual) respect.

We need to teach girls that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, amazing creations of God, and priceless purchases bought by Christ. Girls should learn to respect and love their bodies because they’re created in the image of God. The purpose of the human body is to bear that sacred image in a dark, crazy world. That’s what we should be telling our girls—and our boys.

Also by Jill Richardson: The Subtle Hazing of Women in Ministry

More on Purity Culture:
5 Purity Culture Myths and Why They Are False Promises
7 Lies That Purity Culture Teaches Women
Modesty, a Fairytale Witch, and Growing Up Dangerous
Bikinis, Bodies, And How We Talk About Modesty